Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingPoetry is a perfect medium for memoir, as Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood memoir in verse attests. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses free verse to tell the story of her childhood, beginning before her birth in Ohio in 1963, moving through her early childhood years in South Carolina, and then into her school years in Brooklyn with summers back in South Carolina.

The lovely thing about her use of verse is that it allows her to keep her memories fragmented as memories so often are. There are images of flickering fireflies, hot combs and hair grease, a composition notebook, chalk on the pavement, and Angela Davis on the television. These images are arranged in a sort of chronological order, often in small vignettes that Woodson shares, but they don’t have to be forced into a clear narrative. Sometimes the memories stand on their own, just bits and pieces that together make a story of a life.

Within that life story, certain themes emerge repeatedly. Family is important, as the changes in young Jackie’s family uproot her time and again while giving her stability in new situations. Her family isn’t perfect; her father is not on the scene, and her mother leaves Jackie and her older siblings with her grandparents for a few years, but there’s always love there. You get the sense that this is just the way things were. In a typical prose memoir, particularly one written for adults, I might expect more explanations of these separations, but explanations would seem out of place in a verse memoir for young readers. The book is focused on Jackie’s impressions at the time, not on adult explanations.

That’s not to say that Woodson avoids heavy topics. Race comes up several times, with her father refusing to live in South Carolina and her South Carolina grandmother avoiding stores where she knows she won’t be treated with respect, even after segregation is made illegal. The fabric store is a favorite because “At the fabric store, we’re just people.” Again, she focuses on her childhood impressions, the things she noticed and heard, letting readers find commentary between the lines. And the commentary is there, as it is in the poem called “Ghosts,” which presents a powerful image of the legacy of racism:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Our racist history is always there. Painting over it doesn’t take it away. And the memory of that history still keeps people out. It’s why, I think, removal of Confederate flags from public spaces is so important. Flying those flags is a way of keeping those words visible, telling black citizens that they just aren’t welcome. We have to do more to erase that messages from our public spaces, not just paint over them.

Another theme is her emerging voice as a writer. As a young child, Jackie struggled with reading (“the words twist/twirl across the page”), but she loved words and stories. She memorized Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” and told it to her class. She wrote a book of haiku about butterflies. And one day she realized that words can make a difference:

I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
we’re part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.

I’ve long admired Jacqueline Woodson’s books, and this is no exception. If you haven’t read her, do check her books out. Locomotion, Hush, and Feathers are also well worth your time.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Memoir, Poetry | Leave a comment

A God in Ruins

God in RuinsI love seeing one of my favorite writers get the praise she deserves, but I’m missing the old Kate Atkinson, with her dark humor and goofy narrative voices. I miss having fun reading her books. A God in Ruins, like its companion Life After Life, is a very good book, but it’s not much fun.

A God in Ruins tells the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula from Life After Life. The approach here is entirely different from that of the earlier book (and you absolutely do not need to have read Life After Life to follow this). Whereas we saw multiple versions of Ursula’s life, here we dive deeply into Teddy’s one life.

Teddy’s life is defined by his time as a bomber pilot in World War II. The book skips around in time, showing Teddy at different phases of his life, struggling to exist in this new world, where he survived against all odds. His daughter, Violet, treats him with scorn. His grandchildren like him, but they’re often kept apart. And even though the Germans didn’t get him, old age certainly will.

In puzzling out why Atkinson chose to structure the novel as she did, with all the jumps back and forth in time, I’ve come to think that maybe we’re supposed to see that life isn’t a tidy narrative, with one event following naturally after the other. Something that happened 15 years ago might inform our reactions to something that will happen 25 years from now. I’m not sure, though. Maybe it’s just a gimmick. Maybe serious novels today are supposed to play around with time, so that’s what she does. I didn’t mind it, though. In fact, I liked being able to place Teddy as an old man right next to Teddy as a young pilot. It showed that his one life is all one life. The young man is the old man.

The book’s ending is another puzzle. As Teddy’s life comes crashing to an end, we see that a lot of our assumptions about what we were reading were false. The young man is the old man, but not in the way we might have assumed. I’m not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, it feels like a cheat, and a cliched one at that. But on the other, when I set this book next to Life After Life, it appears to be another way of getting at the same idea of how the consequences of one event spin out far beyond that event.

In his post-war life, Teddy often feels lonely and misunderstood. He has some nice moments with his grandchildren, but the overall tone of the book is somber, particularly during the post-war sections. The pre-war and even the wartime sections are livelier. In light of the book’s ending, this fact is particularly unsettling. What does it say about Teddy’s need to keep flying, long after he could have stopped? Also, I’m not sure what to do with some of the shifts in perspective that happen during the book, in light of the ending. I think we’re meant to see something here about how an imagined life is still a life, even if it isn’t real—or something about the multiple possibilities of life that all exist simultaneously until an event closes some of them off. Maybe it’s just about the fact that life is all possibility until it ends.

I’m still working out exactly what I think about this book. It’s beautifully written, although the narrative voice came across as rather cold to me, especially when set against Atkinson’s earlier work. The narration in Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Emotionally Weird isn’t nearly as controlled as this third-person voice, but it’s the exuberant narration that sets these books apart. The voice here is one I’ve encountered before, in endless numbers of books. That doesn’t mean it isn’t well done or that the book is not good, but other than the ending (which part of me sees as a gimmick), I didn’t see this as particularly original. Originality, however, is sometimes overrated, and a very good book of its type that hits all the right marks is still a very good book. Still, if this were my first Atkinson, I wouldn’t count her as a favorite author, just as an author I like a lot and would happily read again.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

The Unspeakable

UnspeakableIn the introduction to this essay collection, Meghan Daum writes that our societal discourse is “largely rooted in platitudes” and that her goal in the book was to get beyond the platitudes to discuss “the unspeakable thought many of us harbor—that we might not love our parents enough, that life’s pleasures sometimes feel more like chores—but can only talk about in coded terms.” The topics she takes on—marriage, children, pets, music, identity—have been written about over and over, and her position on them is not necessarily new or original. But she writes with such platitude-avoiding skill that I ended up enjoying this collection (mostly) very much.

My favorite essay, “On Not Being a Foodie,” appears late in the book. It starts out being just what the title says, an essay about not caring much about food, and turns into a contemplation of something I often struggle with—the constant drumbeat that tells us to step out of our comfort zones in order to be our best selves. Daum writes,

Having lived most of my life firmly within the confines of a very specific set of interests and abilities, I can tell you that the comfort zone has many upsides. It may be associated with sloth and cowardice and any number of paralyzing, irrational phobias. It may be a dark abyss where misunderstood people lie around in fading recliners listening to outdated music. But I’m convinced that, when handled responsibly, the comfort zone can be as useful and productive as a well-oiled industrial zone. I am convinced that excellence comes not from overcoming limitations but from embracing them. At least that’s what I’d say if I were delivering a TED Talk. I’d never say such a douchy thing in private conversation.

She goes on to discuss how she hasn’t bothered to improve at things she’s bad at or learn to enjoy popular pastimes that she doesn’t. She lives in her comfort zone and doesn’t feel bad about it. “The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone,” she says. This is a sentiment I can get behind, although I wonder what the world would be like if everyone lived this way. Maybe there are times to step beyond our comfort zones. Surely, though, we shouldn’t do so just because society has deemed a certain activity cool—and that’s a lot of what Daum is talking about.

From “The Dog Exception,” I also share Daum’s annoyance yet complete inability to resist the “Rainbow Bridge” poem about how we’ll see our beloved pets again when we die: “The Rainbow Bridge poem makes me cry because as much as I want never to see it again I want even more for it to be true.” Yes. This is exactly the kind of sentimental glurge that I generally find unbearable, but when my Sophie was dying on my lap last fall, I told her that if she was in pain that she could go and that I would see her again someday at that bridge. I needed that story. Somehow my pets do that to me. Sometimes platitudes work.

One of the things I liked about these essays is that Daum is willing to show less than flattering pictures of herself. This was certainly true in “Difference Maker,” which chronicles her work as a mentor for teens as part of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and then as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for foster kids. She tied her interest in doing this work to her ambivalence about having children, making the essay more about her than about the kids she was helping. Although, to be fair, she was not allowed to reveal much about any of these kids. And I appreciated that this essay didn’t turn the often messy and tedious work of helping kids in need into a fairy tale of trips to the zoo and balloons and ice cream cones. It’s more often about trips to Target or the courthouse and learning to shrug it off when an expensive gift goes unused. And it’s something she can leave at the end of the day and go home to her quiet house with her husband: “Whether that’s was fundamentally sad or fundamentally exquisite we’d probably never be sure. But who can be sure of such things? And what’s so great about being sure, anyway?”

I didn’t always like or agree with what Daum had to say, but most of the time I could appreciate her ideas. I was a little annoyed with “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” because it turns out I like all the “wrong” Joni Mitchell songs and haven’t even heard the “right” ones. But whatever. And despite being only a couple of years younger than Daum, I was exasperated by some of her comments about the Gen X/Millienial divide in “Not What It Used to Be.” I did, however, appreciate her nostalgia for a past “feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Although I could find something to appreciate in most of these essays, even those I didn’t love, one, “Honorary Dyke,” stood out as particularly bad. You can imagine from the title. Most of the essay chronicles Daum’s efforts to understand her own gender identity and sexuality. She wants to identify with lesbians in how she presents herself, but she is a straight woman. And so, in the essay, lesbian women seem like props against which she can measure herself. It’s unfortunate, to put it mildly. The thing is, this essay could have been interesting if Daum had gone a step further to examine the ways women present themselves and the assumptions we make about each other based on those presentations. She gets at a kernel of that toward the end:

There’s more than one way to be a person. Actually, there are more than two or three ways. You’d think that was obvious, but I find that often it is not. The world is essentially a collection of teams. Life is a process of deciding which ones we’re going to join.

I would have loved for her to scrap a lot of the material leading up to this and dig into the idea of how the human need to join up with teams rubs up against the fact that our teams do not define our whole selves. That would have been great, but this essay was both a mess and a missed opportunity.

Most of the essays, however, aren’t messes at all, but enjoyable musings on difficult topics. These essays include none of the reportage that fills Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams. Enjoying the essays will probably require enjoying Daum’s own personality and often privileged perspective. This is not, in short, a hard-hitting collection about how life ought to be; it’s one imperfect woman’s musings on how she experiences the difficulties of her own life. These are personal essays, and include all that’s great and not-so-great about the form.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 11 Comments

The Philosopher Kings

philosopher-kings-200x300As soon as I finished The Just City, Jo Walton’s marvelous story of a Platonic utopia gone dystopian, I began counting the days until summer, when the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, would be published. The first book chronicled the building of a society that would live by the rules set forth in Plato’s Republic. Athene gathered founders who sought such a place from across time, and they brought slave children to the city, gave them their freedom, and raised them according to Plato’s edicts. Apollo, living as a human to learn about free will and consent, joins the City as one of these children. By the end of the book, the system’s many flaws had risen to the surface, and the City was fracturing.

The Philosopher Kings picks up the story 20 years later. The Just City is now called the Remnant, one of five “just cities” on the island of Kallist (better known to us as Atlantis). Each city interprets Plato differently and thus lives by different rules. The cities maintain some ties, but those ties aren’t entirely peaceful. Wars over the art collected for the original Just City are common. And some fear the return of the Goodness, the ship that carried away those who decided to abandon the Platonic experiment entirely.

Two of the narrators from The Just City return to tell the story. Apollo, also known as Pytheas, continues to work through what it means to be human as he experiences grief and watches his children grow up and discover their own power. Maia, one of the city’s founders, still strives for excellence but with a greater awareness of how murky morality can be when human beings are involved. They are joined by Arete, daughter of Apollo and Simmea, a young woman just reaching adulthood and trying to decide how best to use her gifts.

I didn’t love this nearly as much as I did The Just City, but I still liked it a great deal and look forward to the next book. (This book had an even more game-changing ending than the last, so I’m very curious as to how it will all play out.) One of the things I enjoyed most about The Just City was watching the city’s people work through establishing their rules and then seeing how they did and didn’t work. This book, however, is about cities with established ways of doing things. It was fun to see the ways the different strains of thinking spun off in different directions, but it wasn’t quite as much fun as being there at the start of it all.

Still, there’s much to appreciate in this book. The moral challenges the characters face are difficult ones, and even when the answers seem obvious (and they often are not), living with those answers is hard. The ending seemed to come out of nowhere, and I’m not sure that I love where it’s heading. But I’m curious enough that I’ll definitely read the final book, Necessity, when it comes out next year.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Greengage Summer

Greengage SummerImagine taking your five children to another country all by yourself and then getting very sick and having to be hospitalized. Pretty terrible situation, right? So how would you cope? Would you leave them in the care of a random Englishman staying at your hotel? Because that’s what the mother of the Grey children did. Seem like a bad idea? It was, but it makes a good book.

According to the preface to the 1993 edition, Rumer Godden based The Greengage Summer on something that happened to her when she was 15 years old. Her mother got sick when they were in France and left Rumer and her sisters with an Englishwoman who was staying a their hotel with her young daughter and husband, but this Englishwoman was not exactly what she seemed. Godden raises the stakes in this story by making the children younger and giving them a single man for a caretaker.

Thirteen-year-old Cecil Grey tells the story. Cecil is the second of five children: Joss is her elder sister, and Hester, Willmouse, and Vicky are the younger siblings. In their English village, the family is seen as eccentric. Their father is away on expeditions most of the time, and so they live in the village of Southstone with their mother’s brother, William. They don’t fit in with William or with their neighbors:

I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as if a pattern mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit. For one thing we were much poorer than the people we knew, poor to be Uncle William’s sister, nieces and nephew; and we had this curiously absent father while other girls’ fathers went to offices and caught trains and belonged to the Sussex Club. Mother too was not like other mothers, nor like a grown-up at all; she patently preferred being with Vicky or Willmouse or any of us than playing bridge, or organising bazaars, or having coffee or luncheon or tea with the select Southstone ladies. When any of us—except Hester, who was at home anywhere—went out to tea in one of the big red-brick houses, with lawns and laurel bushes and meticulously driveways, we felt interlopers. We were odd, belonging and not belonging, and odd is an uncomfortable thing to be; we did not want to belong but were humiliated that we did not. I know now it was not good for us to live in Southstone. We should not have been as odd somewhere bigger, in London perhaps.

It is Cecil and Joss’s rude complaints about their situation that led to the trip to France. Their exasperated mother decided to take them to the battlefields of France:

“So that you can see what other people have given … given for your sakes; and what other people will do in sacrifice. Perhaps that will make you ashamed and make you think. And Saint Joan … Saint Joan at the stake. We shall stop at wherever it was and see where she was burned.”

And so the children end up in France with their mother in the hospital. Their mother enlists the strange Englishman named Eliot to look after them because she doesn’t want to hear William telling her he knew all along her plan was no good.

The funny this is, as ill-conceived as their mother’s actions obviously are, the story doesn’t condemn her. She’s in a difficult situation, too. But Eliot is no fit guardian, for reasons Cecil only hints at to start. The narrative in the early chapters, which jumps around in times, but Cecil’s dark hints keep the interest high.

It becomes evident early on that part of the problem is Joss’s burgeoning womanhood—or, rather, other people’s reactions to her newfound beauty. Men look at her in admiration and lust, and women look at her with jealousy and suspicion. Godden very wisely makes it clear that Joss’s growth in itself is just a thing that happens, that she is in no way to blame for what others think. Any irresponsible actions she takes that make matters worse are her ways of coping, trying to figure out how to live in this new self. Her attention to Joss’s predicament and Cecil’s mixed feelings about this new Joss is consistently respectful and honest.

Eliot is a poor guardian not just because he is too entranced by Joss’s beauty to remember that she is still a child and in his care. He has plenty of other secrets that make him untrustworthy. But who Eliot is interests me less than how the children react to him. Each one seems to see him a little differently. Ten-year-old Hester, noting his frequent apologies, offered my favorite insight: “Eliot always said, ‘I’m sorry. I had to do that.’ If you are all right really, really all right, you don’t do things that are sorry.”

I first experienced Rumer Godden’s writing in the children’s book The Story of Holly and Ivy, which is embued with precise detail and a sense of longing that entranced me as a child. It was only in that last few years that I learned she’d written quite a lot of adult novels. Jenny at Reading the End in particular put her back on my radar. Christy and Leslie and I decided to read and discuss this together this month, and  I look forward to reading more. I already have In This House of Brede, thanks to Jenny, and I loved the film of Black Narcissus, so I’ll be looking for that one. I welcome more recommendations!

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 16 Comments

The Replacement

One of the most vivid, sad, and frightening scenes in Little, Big is about a changeling. Sophie brings the thing with which the faeries have replaced her infant daughter Lilac to George Mouse, hoping against hope for some kind of help:

“Then I saw it climbing up the stairs. Stair by stair. It looked — what’s the word — it looked purposeful: like it knew where it was going. So I said, ‘Hey, wait a second, buster –‘ I couldn’t think of it as a girl — and I reached for its arm. It felt weird, cold, and dry, like leather. It looked back at me with this look of hate — who the fuck are you — and it pulled away, and I pulled back, and –” George sat again, overcome. “It tore. I tore a hole in the god damn thing. Rrrrip. A hole opened up near its shoulder, and you could look in, like into a doll — empty. I let go fast. It didn’t seem to be hurt, just flapped the arm, like damn now it’s busted, and crawled on; and its blanket was coming off, and I could see there were some other cracks and splits here and there — at the knees, you know, and the ankles. This kid was falling apart.”

replacementThree years ago, Jenny at Reading the End wrote a review of Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement, which is also about a changeling. I had forgotten about the book until she mentioned it again recently, at which time I pounced. Yovanoff’s book turns the situation around. What is it like to be that purposeful changeling in a family, a society, where you never belonged?

Mackie Doyle, the narrator of the story, is the thing with which the faeries replaced his family’s infant son Malcolm. The difference is that he’s survived infancy, survived toddlerhood, into adolescence. But like the changeling in Crowley, Mackie is now falling apart. He’s allergic to iron, and to blood; a skinned knee can send him into a fainting spell, and it takes him days to recover. He can’t walk on consecrated ground, even though his father is the pastor of a church; he just has to linger outside and look like the rebellious adolescent he’d prefer not to be. He’s constantly exhausted and ill. He spends his remaining energy trying not to seem different (even though he and his family know that he is irrecoverably, fundamentally different) — if the townsfolk of Gentry found out who or what he was, they’d turn on him.

Because Malcolm is not the first child who’s disappeared in Gentry, and he won’t be the last. The town is ruled by faeries (not that Gentry will name this phenomenon) who protect the town and make it essentially recession-proof. In return, they demand adulation, love… and blood sacrifice. This time, they’ve taken Mackie’s friend Tate’s baby sister Natalie, and Tate — a ferocious and furious girl who sees through Gentry’s comfortable lies — wants her sister back.

(A brief interruption: this is something Little, Big never really addresses. The faeries in that novel wage war, or some simulacrum of it, and they do things that cause sorrow to humans, or radically inconvenience them, but there is no “teind to hell” or anything like it. This goes against all the literature. Hmmm.)

In any case, the most interesting thing about this book is the way we look inside Mackie, and unlike Crowley’s changeling, he is not empty. He isn’t a person — he finds that with more habit and use, he might be more comfortable underground with the faeries than with his own family. But he isn’t entirely one of them, either: he reacts against the justifications and rules of Faerie as much as against his own allergens. Who is Mackie? We don’t know, and neither does he. But he is a terrific character.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the dialogue. All the description and all the stuff inside Mackie’s head was thoroughly enjoyable, but the actual dialogue was sometimes painfully banal. But the characterization was good nonetheless; there are small movements and actions that tell us more than any of the words. Some of the secondary characters are equally lovely. Mackie’s  friends Roswell and Danny and Drew are well thought-out. Roswell in particular, whose family has never had a changeling in it and appears to be literally charmed, is interesting: I would have liked to see more about what it takes to be charmed in a cursed town. Mackie’s sister Emma was very believable. And the faerie realm was definitely eerie enough for me. (Did you know that the Morrigan is often depicted as three sisters? More sisterly stuff, very nice.)

Thanks to Jenny for the recommendation! And, more good changeling/ faerie books, please. And, I am recommending this book to you now.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Through the Woods

ThroughtheWoodsI love a creepy story, and this book by Emily Carroll offers five of them, all in comics form and all very, very creepy. These stories are short and lavishly illustrated, and I hesitate to tell you much of what they’re about. The stories are so brief that to share much of the plot is to give away everything, and I know you’d like to discover them for yourself.

Most of the stories have the feel of old-fashioned fairy tales but with a huge dash of horror (not unlike a lot of actual fairy tales). My favorites were the first two. “Our Neighbor’s House” is a story of three sisters left alone in their house as their father goes hunting. Three days later, he hasn’t returned and they have to decide whether to stay or brave the storm and go to their neighbor’s, as he’d directed. The second, “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” is a beautifully illustrated ghost story. The story itself is not particularly original, but the art makes it sing.

The last three are a little more strange and the creep factor was slightly lower, I think because they didn’t tap into old childhood nightmares the way the first two did. But they’re very good stories. The last one “The Nesting Place” has a particularly strong payoff. And the book’s conclusion has an unsettling (and funny) warning from the wolf in the woods.

Carroll’s website features even more of her stories, including “His Face All Red,” from this collection. I look forward to perusing them all. During the day. With the lights on.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Little, Big (late read-along part 2)

little bigIn my last post on Little, Big, I talked briefly about some of the authors that crowd the pages of the book: Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Giordano Bruno, Kenneth Grahame, George MacDonald, Ovid, and on and on. (Tom at Wuthering Expectations talked about this, too.) In some ways, the novel is like the crazy-quilt that the sisters Tacey, Lily, and Lucy sew together:

The needles they drew through cloth glittered when they pulled them out to the full extension of the thread; each time they pulled them through the threads grew shorter until they were all worked into the fabric, and must be cut, and others slipped through the needles’ eyes. […]

“What a tangle,” Tacey said, and held up for them to see a handful of stuff from her workbox, which a child or a cat had got into: silk thread bright as blood, and black cotton darning-stuff, a hank of sheep-colored wool, a silkpin or two, and a bit of sequined fabric dangling from it all, spinning on a thread-end like a descending spider.

This sewing, or weaving, of allusions is just one of the things that makes Little, Big a story about story. As in Ovid, there are metamorphoses and changes enough for anyone, but the general drift is that lives and people turn not into trees or stars (though that happens, too) but into stories. John Drinkwater can understand the voices of the animals, and he turns their everyday lives into profitable stories for children; we hear one of these stories read aloud. His son Auberon takes the stories of his own family and their neighbors and writes them into scripts for a thriving daytime soap opera called A World Elsewhere. Sophie’s sad, horrible experience with a changeling isn’t presented to us directly, but as a story told by another participant. Charmed Tarot cards fall into one pattern after another — the Least Trumps — telling the small stories and the great, day after day. And at the end, the Drinkwater Mouse Stone Barnable family, and their house that is a door, become a story themselves:

That there was such a house in the world, lit and open and empty, became a story in those days; there were other stories, people were in motion, stories were all they cared to hear, stories were all they believed in, life had got that hard. […]

One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories.

One of the insistent motifs of this book is that there is a Tale being told, and no part of anything that happens can be outside the Tale. But of course the Tale that’s being told is the book we’re holding in our hands, and the house, the door into that world, is also this book, these pages. Story about story about story.

Like all the literature Crowley references, Little, Big is didactic. We are meant to learn something from this book, like Alice repeating “How doth the little crocodile.” What are the lessons we are taught? Let’s see:

What makes us happy makes us wise.

Longing is fatal.

The world is as is is, and not different.

The farther in you go, the bigger it gets.

During the course of the tale, most of the characters work out these lessons in one way or another (certainly if they are not made wise by being happy, they are made foolish by being unhappy.) And since the Tale, as I’ve pointed out, is Little, Big itself, I find that the farther in I go, the bigger it gets. This re-read has convinced me that this book will continue to be dark and deep, beautiful, funny, rewarding, and mysterious, each time I read it. I thank Dolce Bellezza for prompting the read-along (however tardy I was in doing it) and I look forward to another in a few years.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Thorn

ThornBefore I started reading Thorn by Intisar Khanani, I kept reminding myself to go read the story of the Goose Girl. Because what good is a fairy tale retelling if you don’t know the tale it’s retelling? Well, I kept forgetting, and the next thing I knew I was several chapters into Thorn, and I had no interest in reading something else. This story would do just fine on its own.

Now that I’ve read the book and the Wikipedia page for Grimm’s Fairy Tale, I can tell you that the stories follow the same general outlines. A princess is sent away to a faraway kingdom to get married, and on the way one of the ladies accompanying her changes places with her and makes herself princess. The true princess is made to care for the geese. There’s also a talking horse and some magical wind.

Khanani’s story expands on the magical elements, making the switch more than a mere change of costume and the wind more than a friendly force that helps the princess. But the general outline is the same. I’m sure those who know the story would enjoy the echoes.

But what about readers like me, who don’t know the original? I found it a satisfyingly engrossing and rich tale. I’ve been trying lately to nail down just what sorts of fantasy I most enjoy. When I reviewed Uprooted, I noted that stories that involve a lot of large-scale politics tend to bore me. This book had the perfect blend of personal and political. The story’s focus is always on Princess Alyrra (aka Thorn) and her struggle to figure out what she ought to do and who she ought to be. But her function as princess is treated not as merely decorative. She will wield political power and the choices she makes will affect the kingdom. Her Horse Falada (sob!) continually reminds her of her duty and pushes her to consider how she might fulfill it. Much of the time, Alyrra wants to just remain a goose girl, but that may not be the best way to help the friends who toil alongside her.

The novel concerns itself a great deal with questions of justice—particularly as it draws to a close. When people do great wrong, what is the most moral response? When does justice become vengeance? And what happens when rough justice—thieves’ justice—is a person’s only recourse? Some might find that the book gets a little preachy at this point. Alyrra does, after all, do some preaching. I did not find it so, however, because Khanani gets readers to sit on both sides of the debate. She shows just how beguiling a more vengeful sort of justice is and how costly it is to lean toward mercy. She also shows how sometimes the ideal can be only an ideal, something to strive for even when we cannot live it out.

Another of the book’s delights is the prince. As much as I might feel the sting of what has happened to Alyrra, having her end up with a prince because he’s a prince wouldn’t do much for me. Khanani’s prince, Kestrin, is a fully developed and pleasing character. He makes blunders in his dealings with Alyrra, but they are not the blunders of a cruel, insensitive person. They’re the blunders of someone who genuinely can’t figure out what’s going on or what to do about it. He’s someone I wanted Alyrra to be with not because he was a prince but because he was Kestrin.

Thorn was self-published and seems to have spread through blogs by word of mouth. Ana and Aarti have sung its praises, and I was glad to come across it on Netgalley. It was well worth my time, and if you enjoy fairy tale retellings, whether you know the original tale or not, it may be worth yours too.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

Little, Big (a late read-along)

little bigDuring the merry merry month of May, Dolce Bellezza invited bloggers to join her in a read-along of John Crowley’s Little, Big; one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors. I rashly said I wanted in, even though May is a very busy month for me, and then I never read a word of it or wrote a word about it. But now I’m in the midst of it, and so I’m still in, just limping behind with a stone in my shoe, telling everyone not to wait, I’ll just be a moment.

I’ve already written about this book, and so has Teresa, so I’m not going to sum it up (and anyway, how could you; it’s about a family that has blossomed because it’s been protected, and a house that is a door, and yearning for something bigger — or smaller — or anyway more — or possibly less — but it’s about longing, anyway — and it takes place in the Wild Wood — and the Great City — and it has fairies in it.)

What I’d like to write about this time is the rich tapestry of allusions that Crowley weaves in Little, Big. Other authors peep out at you as you read, much like the fairies in Auberon’s pictures:

Nora and Timmie Willie had caught, by accident or design, creatures that seemed on the point of metamorphosis from natural to outlandish. A bird’s face here and yet that claw which gripped the branch was a hand, a hand in a sleeve. There wasn’t any doubt about it when you studied it long enough. This cobweb was no cobweb but the trailing skirt of a lady whose pale face was collared in these dark leaves.

In just this way, you can see the traces of other authors who’ve seen pieces of the interaction between the human and the fairy world that Crowley describes. There’s this:

Auberon had a name for all this: Glory. If it wasn’t what was meant by Glory, he didn’t care. His plot — who was to be master, that’s all — didn’t really much interest him; he was never able to grasp just what the Pope and Barbarossa were arguing about anyway.

or this, after a wedding picnic:

Mother tied up the basket, and then saw a plate staring up at her from the grass; when the job had all been redone, Smoke with a sense of déjà vu pointed out a fork she hadn’t seen.

or this, just a tiny hand curling around a vine, about the father who writes children’s nature stories straight from the mouths of the animals themselves:

“He writes under the name of Saunders,” Daily Alice said.

There are several hints at George MacDonald, from Brother North-Wind (only in MacDonald this wind is a huge, beautiful woman), to the daughters of Sophie and Alice: Tacey, Lily, Lucy, Lilac (almost Lilith, almost there), to the stars as flowers and jewels:

Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all the starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.

Speaking of things being little and big, and being bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, and bigger the farther you go in, C.S. Lewis does a good number in this — but so do a lot of people, from the Bible to the Tardis. And I scarcely need mention authors like Giordano Bruno and his Art of Memory, or Plato, or Heraclitus: when Daily Alice crosses the river, it will never be the same river again.

The allusiveness of this novel — the richness, the fullness — but also the purely enchanting originality, give you the sensation that, as with any fairy tale, you’re not reading this for the first time. There are patterns. There are motifs. You know the pale face of that lady, and the gripping hand of that bird. There is a Destiny waiting for you, and a Tale. Yet for all that, you have no idea what waits around the next corner.

I’ll write again about this book — my own belated read-along — when I’ve done with it. Do read Dolce Bellezza’s thoughts, and those of others, on her blog.

p.s. Oh dagnabbit, Tom at Wuthering Expectations said just this, but better and denser and more widely-read, a week ago. Go read what he said, instead.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments